By Alan Silverleib, CNN Congressional Producer.
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill on Tuesday, sending the measure to the Senate floor for further consideration and giving the bill’s backers their first major legislative victory.
Members of the Democratic-controlled panel voted 13-5 in favor of the measure.
If enacted, the plan would constitute the first overhaul of the nation’s immigration policy since 1986.
The committee’s ten Democrats were joined in supporting the bill by three Republicans: Arizona’s Jeff Flake, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch.
Flake and Graham are two of the bill’s four Republican authors.
Both party leaders in the Senate appeared supportive of the effort, a positive sign for backers hoping to win a solid majority in the full chamber.
“I think the ‘Gang of Eight’ has made a substantial contribution to moving the issue forward,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, praised the “masterful” job of Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, in navigating roughly 300 proposed amendments and advancing the 844-page bill to the floor.
The measure will create a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
It aims to strengthen border security while raising the cap on visas for high skilled workers and establishing a new visa program for low skilled workers on America’s farms and elsewhere.
Proponents say the change is necessary to permanently and fairly resolve the status of roughly 11 million undocumented residents. Critics insist the proposed change amounts to amnesty, rewarding those who chose to break the country’s immigration laws.
In a defeat for backers of expanded gay rights, the committee did not approve a pair of Leahy-sponsored amendments bolstering federal support for bi-national same-sex relationships.
Specifically, the Vermont senator had proposed recognizing same-sex marriages in which one spouse is an American, and allowing U.S. citizens to sponsor foreign-born same-sex partners for green cards given proof of a committed relationship.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the most prominent Republican in the “Gang of Eight,” was among those who called Leahy’s amendments a poison pill virtually certain to destroy GOP support for the measure.
Leahy’s amendments could be considered again when the bill is taken up by the full Senate. Doing so, however, would be little more than a symbolic gesture, as the proposals have virtually no chance of winning the 60 votes almost certainly needed to clear the 100-member chamber.
Earlier this month, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, noted the possibility that an upcoming ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the federal Defense of Marriage Act could render the whole issue moot.
“The DOMA ruling could change this whole debate,” Durbin said. “They could eliminate DOMA and impose obligations on our federal government (relating to) same gender marriage, and that would dramatically change what we’re trying to achieve.”
The House is working on its own version of immigration reform.
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